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As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives
Newt Gingrich on Capitol Hill on Wednesday after addressing a Hispanic prayer breakfast.
May 11th, 2011
02:53 PM ET

As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives

Editor's Note: CNN’s Joe Johns will explore the relationship between Newt Gingrich and social conservatives Thursday on The Situation Room at 5 p.m. ET.

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - How big a stumbling block will Newt Gingrich’s three marriages and admission of an affair pose to his efforts to win so-called values voters?

“It’s a huge hurdle,” said Richard Land, the public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, the county’s largest evangelical denomination.

“I must have asked 500 Southern Baptists about this in individual conversations,” Land said. “Evangelical men are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I find an implacable wall of resistance among evangelical women.”

As he announced Wednesday that he'll seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it's clear that Gingrich is aware of the huge role religious conservatives play in the GOP primaries. But he also knows that his past presents challenges to winning them over.

“In meetings with pastors, the issue always comes up,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman.

“And he answers it straightforwardly, courageously, without making excuses,” Tyler said. “Once they understand that he, like them, relies on his faith to get him through every day, they can get beyond it and hear his message. It turns out that pastors really are in the business of forgiveness.”

In recent years, Tyler has spearheaded Gingrich’s stepped-up campaign to organize evangelicals and Catholics at the grass roots - and to bring them closer to fiscal conservatives through efforts like the Tea Party movement. Tyler says that campaign will be especially important in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals represent huge voting blocs.

“I’ve been with Newt as he’s met with literally thousands of pastors; he’s made it an ongoing part of our travel agenda,” Tyler said.

On Wednesday morning, hours before he announced his campaign for the presidency via Twitter, Gingrich addressed the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill.

In recent years, Gingrich has also made promoting religion in public life a central part of his message. He says a 2002 federal court ruling against reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of its “under God” clause was a wake-up call.

At a speech to a Texas megachurch in March, Gingrich said that the United States will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in a matter of generations unless Americans fight back against secularization.

Although religious conservatives are likely to respond to that message, the question for Gingrich is whether they’ll accept the messenger.

Gingrich's first marriage ended after he discussed the details of the divorce with his wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He married again in 1981 and was divorced in 2000, when he married the young congressional aide with whom he had had an affair.

Some accused Gingrich of hypocrisy for cheating on his wife around the time the House was impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying about his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Many religious Americans may be apt to forgive him.

“Among evangelicals, the drama of sin and redemption is well understood,” said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “The question is how effectively he can explain that he’s not the same person he was back then.”

Gingrich would not be the first presidential candidate to overcome doubts among religious conservatives because of perceived personal transgressions.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first divorced person to win the White House, with lots of help from evangelicals who’d supported Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, four years earlier.

“Newt simply needs to address the past in an authentic way that makes it clear he is a changed man,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “and I believe the overwhelming majority of social conservative voters will be fair-minded and forgiving.

“Most important, he needs to talk about how he has found peace and meaning through a personal relationship with Christ, that his marriage has never been stronger and that he has never been closer to his children and grandchildren,” said Reed, who once led the Christian Coalition.

Gingrich has apologized for his past behavior in interviews and usually appears in public with his wife, Callista. Gingrich has also spoken about how Callista helped lead him to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism in 2009.

“What evangelicals see in that (conversion) story is God at work,” Tyler said. “He went to Mass with Callista as a supportive spouse, and evangelicals have told me they think that’s right where God wanted him. Over time, it had a powerful effect.”

Still, some top religious conservatives say Gingrich still has a lot of work to do to win the votes of many conservative evangelicals and Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Land said he told Gingrich late last year that he needs to address his personal behavior in a major address.

“The only chance of clearing this hurdle is to give a major speech in some pro-family forum," Land said, "in which he imagines himself to be sitting directly across from an evangelical woman and convinces them that he deeply regrets his behaviors.

"That he understands how hurtful and destructive it was and that he has apologized to the people involved and is happily married and devoted to his wife," Land continued. "And that, whatever happens, there will be no sexual scandal in the Gingrich White House.”

Land says Gingrich told him he’d think about it.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Newt Gingrich • Politics

soundoff (928 Responses)
  1. Bob in LA

    He can run, but he can't hide. Just saying "sorry" does not make things right.
    We can forgive the man, but politicians need to be held to higher standings.
    He is the perfect Republican candidate. There is not ONE without a major flaw we are supposed to overlook.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  2. Allen N Wollscheidt

    Newt for President ? ? - Tee Hee : Makes my day ! ! ! . He deserves the Knumbskull Prize !

    May 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  3. Robert

    This is no surprise. Of course it not's not on the Democratic side either. The diferrence? The Republicans speak the LOUDEST about how they are the ones with the family values. Truth is, they screw up just as often. Which means they have an extreme lack of self awareness when it comes to their own behavior. When a Democrat screws up he's a pervert, man without family values, etc. When a Republican does the same thing it's, "Oh he's just going through a phase" or "He just made a mistake". The truth is that they will vote for him to ramain loyal to the party, no matter what his mistakes were.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  4. CM

    Like the republicans care. They turn a blind eye to that hypocrisy all the time. Kind of like how entertainers should never speak about politics... except Reagan, Arnold, and Kirk Cameron of course.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  5. delrose

    This man is a digrace and a good example of a narcissist. Lord help us all if this is what we have to look forward to in leadership

    May 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  6. PhillUranus

    He should run along with Larry Craig as vice and Mark Foley could be the Secretary of State.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  7. Kman821

    Newt must wipe his mouth with Charmin after giving an interview because of what comes out of it!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  8. njskydiver

    Why beat the man up for having a less than desirable love life up until now? "He that is without sin cast the first stone." We need someone who can help fix our country. Newt is a remarkably bright man – probably the smartest of the entire GOP presidential hopefuls. Let's stop this partisan crap and focus on AMERICA. You know, the place where we all live and have our entire lives invested in. At least hear the man out, then make your decision at the ballot box. How about that for an idea?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Blue

      "NEWT IS THE SMARTEST...."

      not a good time to be a REPUG!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • mitzie

      Odd that you should say that...Newt cast the first stone at Clinton but was guilty at the same time.

      May 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  9. db

    Vote for anyone other then campaigner in chief in white house.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Tom

      Vote for Obama. So far, he's done a pretty good job cleaning up the mess that idiot Bush made.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  10. Menard

    Obama reelection for 2012

    May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  11. Duke13

    Looks like the GOP is scraping the bottom of the bucket for a candidate in 2012.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Dave

      They have been doing this for years, including the Governors they elect. There only mission is to destroy this nation and the states. I don't think God had this plan for us.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • truth2power

      More like the bottom of the outhouse!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Blue

      .... Newt and Sarah in 2012! 😉

      May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  12. beth

    Mr Gingrich admits "an" affair. He was dating his second wife while still married to his first, dated his third while married to number 2. Is there anything he can say to prove that he won't repeat this pattern? Not as far as I am concerned. It is also important to remember that his first family ended up on public assistance. So much for his "family values".

    May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  13. Cindy

    Gee, I wonder if the subject of him leaving his first wife ON HER DEATHBED for his mistress will come up. Get stuffed, Newt!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  14. Guitaristry

    Can you say, "Turd on two legs?"

    May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  15. Nuke the Newt

    I heard he was born in Bulgaria. Where the birth certificate, Nuke?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Cindy

      Let's start a rumor!!! LOL

      May 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  16. sobSaab

    All he has to do is say that he renewed his faith in God and he admits to his transgressions and is a better Christian; the religious people will believe him. These hypocritical Republicans have been manipulating the Evangelical voters for years.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  17. wamyers

    So what if Newt Gingrich had multiple marriages and admitted to an affair? Bill Clinton had multiple affairs and admitted to a marriage. LOL

    May 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Observer

      Clinton had affairs like Gingrich, he just wasn't the world-class HYPOCRITE that Gingrich is.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Funny how CNN doesn't censor Liberal comments on this Board....

      I know - pretty weird, isn't it?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Tom

      Newt was the one casting stones at Clinton, while he was doing the same thing. He is both a hypocrite and a cheat, and he abandoned his wife with cancer. A complete bum!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  18. Sally

    Amen to that! Evangelicals are abominations. The bible says so.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  19. theDude

    What does this mean: Gingrich's first marriage ended after he discussed the details of the divorce with his wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery." ??? How can your first marriage end after you discuss the details of something that hasn't happened???

    May 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Cindy

      I believe it's referring to Newt telling his wife what their divorce was going to look like while she was dying of cancer. What a great guy, eh?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  20. Bob

    IS THIS A** HOLE KIDDING OR WHAT?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Iain T

      And you watch what happens down the road. Republican evangelicals wil be coming out and saying he was led astray by the devel but has returned to the fold, or some other hocus pocus spin. These people and Gingritch disgust me.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Blue

      Newt is such a TOOL...

      May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Paul

      He is not kidding and you will b e amazed at how many stupid Americans will support him. Johnny Depp was correct when he said Americans are the dumbest people in the world. We are a 7 day society....can't remember anything past 7 days.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Iain T

      And you watch what happens next. Evangelical Republicans will come out say he was misled by the devil but has return to the fold or some such hocus pocus nonsense. These people and Gingritch disgust me.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.